LSU game highlights a different attitude for Alabama from 2013

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Did that just happen?

No, you didn’t need to adjust your television. If you were there in Bryant-Denny Stadium and saw it in person that night, you knew it was real. It was Nov. 9, 2013, and Nick Saban was happy. Alabama had just secured a 38-17 win over LSU, and the Crimson Tide’s usually stoic head coach was absolutely beaming. A grin plastered across his face, he jogged toward his quarterback, practically skipping AJ McCarron’s way as the final seconds ran off the clock.

Then Saban leaped into the air, McCarron caught him and the world seemed to freeze in that moment.

It happened. The cameras were rolling, so there’s video evidence to prove it.

The rare sight of a joyous Saban made you wonder what you’d just seen. Never in a win had he seemed so cheerful. It was strangely out of character for a man for whom celebration was a form of defeat -- proudly looking back on success rather than humbly looking ahead to the next challenge.

“AJ and I have been through a lot," Saban said of their embrace. "Some of that you've seen on TV, and some of it you haven’t.”

We saw that. And a thought crept in: Was Saban relieved?

The pressure had been so great last season. Alabama was undefeated and ranked No. 1. The expectation of a third straight national championship was in everything the team did. Every action begged the question: Can they do it again? And by beating LSU, a Top 10 team at the time, it looked as if the answer was yes. It looked as if the dynasty would continue. The way Saban leaped into McCarron’s arms, it was like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. He could smile again.

It didn’t last, of course.

A week later, after a sloppy 20-7 win at Mississippi State, Saban looked disheveled by the wind as much as his own frustrations. He lamented four turnovers and said, “That's not the kind of football we need to play if we're going to be able to be the kind of team we're capable of being." Senior wideout Kevin Norwood said, “We didn’t play Bama ball.” But not many noticed. Alabama was still No. 1.

But two weeks later, in Jordan-Hare Stadium, our eyes were opened for us. Tie game. One second remaining. Adam Griffith’s field goal falls short, Chris Davis catches the ball in the end zone and you know the rest. Alabama falls, the dream season ends and the team is left rudderless, unsure of what’s next with a title no longer in reach.

“We didn't continue to work on the things that have always made us a good football team and a good football program here,” Saban said later. “The complacency and winning sort of got us away from that.”

But after a second straight loss -- to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl -- it all became crystalized. The last question of the post-game news conference in New Orleans was this: “Given your expectations until the last minutes of the Auburn game, do you think your team was completely focused for this?”

It came back to that leap.

“Well, we practiced well and ... I can't blame it on that,” Saban said. “I thought our team late in the season from the LSU game on maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have. We didn't pay attention to detail. We didn't do little things right. We didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.”

This is not 2013, of course.

This is not the same Alabama.

What was taken for granted then has been discarded. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 5, not No. 1. They come in with one loss, not undefeated. They’re searching out a national championship, not of trying to defend one, and there’s a different posture in that -- leaning forward, not falling back.

Without the pressure of retaining some impossible sense of perfection, Alabama’s players are hungry. The chip on their shoulder suits them well.

Against Texas A&M three weeks ago, Alabama played with a new kind of fire, an aggression and energy that hadn’t been seen in some time.

“This is as close to the Alabama football that we want to try to get from our players in terms of effort, toughness, emotional excitement and execution,” Saban said after the 59-0 win.

Saban has been pleased with his team this season, but there’s been no jumping for joy. When Alabama beat Arkansas by one point earlier this season, Saban chastised fans and the media for being disappointed and having unrealistic expectations. He was happy his team found a way to win, not relieved they survived.

That whatever-it-takes attitude should serve them well Saturday when Alabama travels to LSU to face the No. 16-ranked Tigers.

“These games are traditionally very tough, physical games between two ranked teams, and it is certainly not going to be any different this year,” Saban said. “They have a very good team who’s playing their best football.”

LSU’s rise began with a win over Florida and continued with another win over Kentucky. It culminated in an upset of then-undefeated Ole Miss, which handed Alabama its only loss earlier in the season.

Thanks to LSU beating Ole Miss and the Rebs' subsequent loss to Auburn last weekend, the Tide are now in control of their playoff destiny.

There’s a sense of relief in that, players said, knowing a win over LSU could be a step toward a national championship.

But as Saban said Monday, the message is, “Be where your feet are.”

Funny, considering how things ended against LSU last year.

“Rankings really mean nothing right now at all to our team,” Saban said. “But if we’re going to have a chance to end up where we have any opportunities at the end of the season, whether it’s SEC or playoff or anything like that, then we have to take care of business today.”